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Spiritual Leaders Play Important Role in Senegal Election

Disciples of Cheikh Béthio Thioune chant and carry clubs on a marchon March 17, 2012 in Dakar in support of President Abdoulaye Wade. They say the clubs were for self defense against anti-Wade activists.
Disciples of Cheikh Béthio Thioune chant and carry clubs on a marchon March 17, 2012 in Dakar in support of President Abdoulaye Wade. They say the clubs were for self defense against anti-Wade activists.
Nick Loomis

Senegal's marabouts guide the country's Sufi Muslim majority in virtually all sectors of life, yet their influence in politics is not what it once was. Although they will play a role in Sunday's run-off presidential election, how much of one remains to be seen.

President Aboulaye Wade’s bid for a third term has faced a strong opposition movement. After failing to win the first round outright in February, he has looked to the marabouts for their support in the March 25 runoff against Macky Sall. Many of these religious leaders are remaining neutral in the election, but some have taken sides. 

Money for support

Cheikh Béthio Thioune is one such leader.  He says he was told in a dream to deliver a "ndiguel" - an order to disciples - to vote for President Wade.

Thioune says what is important is that the late former leader of his Mouride brotherhood, Serigne Saliou Mbacké, was the pro-Wade messenger in his dream.

But others suggest some of the marabouts, like Thioune, are getting money in exchange for their support.

Political analyst Abdou Lô says that is common for marabouts to help them survive.

"They always form close links with the government, who, in return, guarantees them a certain level of material comfort," Lô said.

Souleymane Ndiaye says that, as a disciple of Thioune, he has no choice but to vote for Wade.

Ndiaye says that reason does not have a place in the ndiguel.  He says it must be done immediately and without condition.

Thioune claims to have 10 million disciples, but more realistic estimates put that number at about 500,000.

Waning influence

Although he is a powerful ally for the president, Lô says that many the leaders of the major marabout brotherhoods are hesitant to break neutrality, aware that their influence is waning outside of strictly spiritual matters.

"They are still listened to by some Senegalese who will do whatever they are asked to," Lô noted. "But the majority of Senegalese now make a difference between the role the marabout is supposed to play in terms of religion, as a guide in their spiritual life, and their role as a citizen."

But marabouts are citizens as well and some maintain that, as such, they are free to engage in politics. Serigne Modou Bousso Dieng is a Mouride marabout and the president of the Young Religious Leaders of Senegal. It is under the latter  political title that he was invited to the Presidential Palace to speak with Wade, whom he now supports in the election.

Dieng says that some people in Senegal cannot distinguish between the roles of marabouts as religious leaders and as political men. He says he is both and it is normal that he would give an order to his people to vote for the candidate he wants in office.

However, his own brother and fellow marabout says it is not normal. Serigne Fallou Dieng laments that some marabouts, and the will of their followers, can be bought by politicians wishing to stay in power.

Will of people


Dieng says that God and God alone is eternal. He says that if the people want to end a regime, politicians and marabouts must respect that wish.

In the first round, 35 percent of the people voted for Wade. The other 65 percent was distributed among a numerous opposition field, which is unanimously supporting Macky Sall in the second round. However, an opposition victory is not a mathematical certainty as the influence of the marabouts remains an unknown variable.


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